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Cover of the 1988 edition

"There's always a thing you can deny an oppressor, if only your allegiance. Your belief. Your co-oping. Often even with vastly unequal power, you can find or force an opening to fight back. In your time many without power found ways to fight. Til that became a power."
Bee
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Woman on the Edge of Time is a 1976 novel by Marge Piercy. It is considered a classic of speculative utopian fiction and feminist literature.

The story follows Consuelo "Connie" Ramos, a thirty-seven-year-old Mexican American woman living in New York City, who is involuntarily committed to a mental hospital by her niece's pimp after injuring him in a fight to protect her niece from the abortion he was trying to force on her. Connie winds up in a different hospital, where she and her friends Skip, a young gay man, and Sybil, a practicing witch, are subjects in an experimental trial of brain implants designed to "rehabilitate" supposedly violent patients by allowing an outsider control of their emotions.

But Connie has a secret weapon: Due to her unusual empathy and emotional receptivity, she had been psychically contacted by Luciente, a woman born over a hundred years in the future. With Luciente's help, Connie is able to "visit" this future society, which is nigh utopian. Sexism, racism, homophobia, and greed have been eliminated, living is communal, and individual freedom is paramount. Yet eventually Connie learns that Luciente's world is threatened by a rival faction—one that where the privileged few control the masses through drugs and mind control technology eerily similar to what Connie has been enlisted to test. Enlightened by these two alternative futures, Connie sets about to interfere with the trials ... or die trying.

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Tropes appearing in Woman on the Edge of Time:

  • An Aesop: Even the powerless can make choices that change the world for the better.
  • Author Tract: The Mattapoisett sequences can verge on the didactic—a quality which some criticized upon the book's release, but ultimately a hallmark of the Speculative Fiction genre the novel helped codify.
  • Bathroom Breakout: Subverted. Connie attempts this in Luis's house, but although she is able to get her bathroom window open a foot and a half, she is too high up to be able to drop out safely.
  • Cuckoo Nest: Since the outside world considers Connie insane, we are prompted to wonder whether her visions of the future are in fact hallucinations. This is never resolved one way or another, although aspects of the visions (such as the similarities between certain Mattapoisett residents and Connie's lost loved ones and a battle sequence which even Luciente claims Connie only imagined) suggest they are. Connie even wonders this herself during her escape attempt:
    A voice in her ears, good-natured, chiding: Luciente as a fraction of her mind, as a voice of an alternate self, talking to her in the night. Perhaps she was mad. Perhaps she was merely close to exhaustion and strung out on Thorazine and barbituate withdrawal.
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  • Cure Your Gays: Skip was involuntarily committed by his parents due to his homosexuality. He tells Connie about the conversion therapy he has already endured, none of which has been effective. After he receives his implant, the doctors are able to successfully stifle his inclinations, leaving Skip without any libido or capacity for emotional connection.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Connie's life has been marked by tragedy, from the deaths of her lovers Claude and Martin to a botched illegal abortion which had disastrous consequences for her health to her daughter being taken by the state when it judged Connie an incapable mother.
  • Death of Personality: Connie reiterates several times that receiving an implant would be "a kind of death."
  • Designer Babies: The most pressing issue being debated in Luciente's time is whether to interfere genetically with the babies grown in each village, selecting for desirable traits. Luciente believes it would be wrong and misguided, while others argue it's no different from what they already do with their vegetables.
  • Driven to Suicide: After Skip has "adjusted" to his implant and been released back to his parents' house, he slits his own throat with an electric carving knife rather than live the stifled, sexless, emotionless life he has been confined to.
  • Dystopia: The alternate future at war with Luciente's is this. The upper class lives in orbit of the Earth, while the rest of humanity lives in cramped, artificial conditions, heavily medicated by drugs and media. Women are considered sexual property and undergo extreme plastic surgeries to enhance their desirability, while many men are conscripted into emotionless military drones.
  • Electroconvulsive Therapy Is Torture: In their first ward, Sybil is taken for electroshock therapy as punishment for attitude.
  • Emotion Control: The doctors in Connie's trial are testing out experimental brain implants with this purpose. Once installed, the doctors can change a patient's mood with the touch of a button. In the technological future, this has been developed to an art: workers and soldiers are strictly controlled to the point where one woman comments that they're basically machines.
  • Epilogue Letter: The book ends with a series of excerpts from Connie's medical records, followed by a brief passage reading:
    There were one hundred thirteen more pages. They all followed Connie back to Rockover.
  • Everyone Is Bi: Subverted. While Luciente's future is free from homophobia and many characters, like Luciente herself, do not distinguish sexually between men and women, both Bolivar and Diana are stated to only be attracted to the same sex.
  • Fish out of Temporal Water: Connie has a very difficult time adjusting to the future and the customs of Mattapoisett and frequently expresses her skepticism in the first half of the book. Downplayed in that she's not stuck there and can return to her own, familiar time at will.
  • Free-Love Future: Monogamy is rare in Luciente's culture, though emotional bonds are taken seriously and jealousy has not been eradicated.
  • The Future: Half the book is set here. Due to her empathetic nature, Connie is able to make psychic contact with Luciente and other strong-minded individuals in the year 2137. While she does not actually Time Travel, she can manifest there and interact with the world for all practical intents and purposes.
  • Future Food Is Artificial: People in the technological future eat repulsive packaged meals made from "coal and algae and wood by-products."
  • Genre-Busting: It's at once a gritty, Keseyan novel about class control and institutionalization and a work of fanciful, didactic Utopian Science Fiction.
  • Happy Place: Luciente's warm, carefree future serves as a much-needed escape for Connie from the horrors of institutionalization.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: In the end, Connie poisons several high-ranking doctors, knowing that it means the end of her freedom and possibly her life, but hoping that it will slow down the trial and possibly allow Sybil and the others to escape.
  • In the Future, Humans Will Be One Race: Played with. While regions in Luciente's future retain their cultural customs and idiosyncrasies, every community is a mix of genetic racial heritage. Luciente's village, Mattapoisett, for example, lives according to the customs of Wampanoag Native Americans, though Luciente is of Mexican descent, Jackrabbit and Diana are white, and Bee is Black.
  • Left Hanging: We don't know if Connie's sacrifice changes the future, if Luciente's way of life prevails, or even if Sybil manages to escape. It's implied by Connie's inability to make contact with Luciente in the end that something has changed, but what is left to the reader's aspirations.
  • Lobotomy: The doctors in Connie's second ward are experimenting with Emotion Control brain implants that suppress personality and supposed violent tenancies. Connie is left conscious for her procedure and describes the feeling of having her brain tampered with in detail.
  • Master of Your Domain: People in Luciente's culture have such precise control over their biological systems that they are able to induce unconsciousness and slow their bodily functions to a crawl. Connie has Luciente teach her these techniques to aid in her escape attempt.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Consuelo means comfort in Spanish. This is both a Meaningful Name, as Connie's compassion and empathy are major character traits, and an Ironic Name, since she spends that majority of the book in extreme discomfort.
    • The name Sybil comes from ten Ancient Greek prophetesses revered for their wisdom and insight.
    • This is standard in Luciente's future, where individuals choose their own names to best reflect themselves. Jackrabbit is flighty and alert, Diana is a lover of women and the moon, and Luciente means bright or shining—when she was first named, she says, she called herself White Light.
  • Mind Rape: Connie and the other patients consider the implants the ultimate violation of their personhood.
    She was the experiment. They would rape her body, her brain, her self. After this she could not trust her own feelings. She would not be her own.
  • Native Guide: Luciente acts as this for Connie, introducing her to the customs and values of Mattapoisett and helping her adjust to such a different way of life.
  • Pay Evil unto Evil: Near the end of the book, Connie asks Luciente if murder is always wrong, or if it can be excused when it is the last resort of the powerless. Luciente replies that power and control are themselves violent, and that evil has never been defeated by Turning the Other Cheek.
  • Psycho Psychologist: Dr. Redding and Dr. Morgan especially are sadistic and dispassionate, with a penchant for torturing the patients with implants for fun.
    Suddenly she thought that these men believed feeling itself a disease, something to be cut out like a rotten appendix. Cold, calculating, ambitious, believing themselves rational and superior, they chased the crouching female animal through the brain with a scalpel.
  • Sick Captive Scam: The means of Connie's first escape attempt. She and Sybil stage a fight, where Sybil pretends to knock Connie out. She uses techniques learned from Luciente to feign unconsciousness and is rushed out of the ward for medical attention. When she is left alone for a moment, she escapes through a fire door.
  • Tampering with Food and Drink: Connie smuggles a bottle of toxic chemicals from her brother's greenhouse and slips it into the doctors' communal coffee pot as her final act of rebellion. At least four of the six are implied to die from it.
  • Thwarted Escape: Connie's first escape attempt ends with her being apprehended at the bus station mere minutes from freedom.
  • Unsettling Gender Reveal: Connie is quite disturbed at first when she embraces Luciente and realizes that she has breasts, having assumed her to be a young man based on her confidence and lack of femininity, especially because Connie has had something of a crush on her.
  • Uterine Replicator: In Luciente's future, babies are no longer borne by humans but grown in a "brooder." Luciente explains that it was necessary for women to give up their biological role as childbearers in order to be truly equal.
  • Utopia: Luciente's society is the idealized form of many countercultural values—tolerance, equity, ecological consciousness. Yet Marge Piercy herself objected to the characterization of her vision as a Utopia because it was all "accessible" and attainable.
  • Weather-Control Machine: Discussed. Connie asks Luciente if her future controls the weather, but Luciente replies that others have tried to before them, with disastrous global consequences.
  • You Are Number 6: Subverted. When Connie learns that citizens of Mattapoisett do not carry surnames, she assumes they must be numbered. Luciente corrects her.
    Connie: I suppose you have numbers. I guess you're only called by first names because your real name—your identification—is a number you get at birth.
    Luciente: Why would we be numbered? We can tell each other apart.

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